Substance abuse is often linked to other mental health disorders. It is commonly comorbid with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety and unresolved trauma. One of the most common comorbid disorders is addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder – more widely known as PTSD. For a long time, PTSD was believed to be a “veteran’s disorder” seeing as so many war veterans would return home after combat with some degree of post-traumatic stress. It is now understood that this mental health condition does not discriminate, and that anyone who has been exposed to moderate or severe trauma is liable to develop the symptoms of PTSD. A study published in 2012 titled Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders: Advances in Assessment and Treatment explored the connection between addiction and unresolved trauma. This study found that individuals who are seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress are 14 times more likely to simultaneously suffer from a substance abuse disorder of some severity. This same study found that the vast majority of individuals who struggle with both disorders at the same time initially began using chemical substances in attempts to alleviate untreated symptoms of PTSD. At Guardian Recovery Network, we thoroughly understand the link between the two disorders, and we offer a comprehensive dual diagnosis program to those who are suffering from comorbid disorders of any kind.

Who Gets PTSD?

Anyone who experiences a significant trauma can develop PTSD. Symptoms might not always appear right away, and can actually take months or years to develop. In order to be diagnosed before symptoms fully develop, an individual usually must have been exposed to the threat of fatality, serious injury or a physical/sexual violation. PTSD can affect anyone who:

  • Directly experienced a traumatic event.
  • Witnessed a traumatic event firsthand.
  • Experienced repeated trauma (this is especially common among sufferers of childhood trauma, who were often exposed to repetitive patterns of abuse and/or neglect).
  • Learning that a close family member or another loved one experienced the threat of or fell victim to accidental or violent death (such as learning that a parent was murdered).

There are some demographics that are more susceptible to trauma than others. For example, war veterans are highly susceptible to PTSD because they experience the devastation of active combat firsthand. Women are more susceptible to PTSD because they experience significantly higher rates of sexual assault than men.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has released several studies on the link between PTSD and substance abuse, and has an entire resource page dedicated to the treatment of addiction in war veterans. The majority of men and women who seek treatment for PTSD after returning home from active combat will simultaneously suffer from a substance abuse disorder. It is important to note that while witnessing violent acts of war can do extensive damage to the human psyche, this is not the only reason why war veterans are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress. Many veterans experience sexual assault or harrassment during their time in the military. While a person of any gender can be assaulted while in active duty, women are more susceptible to sexual assault. Veterans Affairs reported that 1 out of every 5 female military personnel underwent significant sexual trauma while serving overseas.

Alcoholism and Drug Addiction 

In 2018, the National Institute on Drug Abuse published a study titled Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction; Drug Misuse and Addiction. The study explored the role the human brain plays in the development of addictive disorders. It has been found that the same part of the brain that is prone to substance abuse is also prone to the development of other mental health conditions (like PTSD).

Those who are abusing chemical substances may experience the following behavioral symptoms:

  • Noticeable changes in behavior.
  • A lack of motivation, leading to poor performance at work and a host of other issues.
  • Interpersonal problems/concerned friends and family members.
  • Defensiveness when asked about substance use.
  • In inability to successfully manage finances.

There are many physical changes that are liable to occur as well, though these will depend heavily on the substance in question. For example, an individual who is abusing stimulant drugs (like methamphetamine or cocaine) might experience significant weight loss, and start to look gaunt and frail. An individual who is drinking heavily might gain weight, and experience changes to skin tone and bloodshot eyes.

It is believed that part of the reason why men and women who have experienced trauma reach for drugs and alcohol is the significant depletion of endorphins that inevitably occurs. It is important to note that while chemical substances might provide fleeting relief, they will only make symptoms of PTSD worse in the long run.

Symptoms of PTSD 

If an individual has been experiencing intrusive and debilitating symptoms for over a month, he or she can be officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms of this disorder will depend on the individual and the type of trauma that was experienced. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America explores the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder more in-depth. They describe symptoms as being in three main categories, which are as follows:

  • Avoidance and emotional numbness when avoidance is unsuccessful – This means that the trauma sufferer will actively avoid emotional triggers and people, places and things that might evoke memories of the trauma. For example, a woman who has experienced sexual trauma might actively avoid members of the opposite sex, or a man who has been in a devastating car accident might avoid getting behind the wheel of a car.
  • Increased emotional arousal – Those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress are far more prone to violent or emotional outbursts, sometimes which are seemingly unprovoked. In some cases, trauma sufferers will seek out situations that allow them to express their anger – for example, a man who has just lost his wife might seek out a bar fight as an opportunity to take out his aggression on someone else.
  • Re-experiencing the trauma – This symptom occurs by way of flashbacks and nightmares, most frequently. The trauma sufferer will relive the traumatic event over and over again, each time experiencing the emotional discomfort that was felt the first time.

The diagnostic criteria that medical professionals consider before diagnosing an individual with PTSD include:

  • Distressing memories of the event cropping up when unwanted. 
  • Flashbacks that result in dissociative reactions. 
  • Dreams of the traumatic experience that recur and cause intense emotional distress.
  • Persistent and overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame. 
  • A newfound inability to connect with others on a deep, interpersonal level. 
  • An inability to experience pleasure or feel truly happy. 
  • Negative thoughts and feelings about the external world and other people. 
  • Irritability and aggressiveness. 
  • An increase in risk-taking and self-destructive behavioral patterns. 
  • An exaggerated response to being startled or scared. 
  • An inability to sleep, often marked by severe insomnia relating to nightmares.

Guardian Recovery Network and Dual Diagnosis 

At Guardian Recovery Network, we understand how important it is for unresolved trauma and substance abuse to be treated simultaneously in a designated dual diagnosis facility. Our recovery program caters to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – our team of compassionate and experienced mental health professionals have extensive backgrounds in the treatment of trauma, and provide a curriculum of comprehensive and personalized care geared towards threatening all existing issues thoroughly and effectively. To learn more about our program of PTSD and substance abuse recovery, give us a call today.

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